Child's death fuels questions about Calif. county's air ambulance system

A dispatcher sent a fire helicopter that took 18 minutes to arrive instead of a sheriff's helicopter that was one minute away

Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — With a bystander pumping on his little chest, 7-year-old Ver'shad Raggins lay dying in August 2019 on the 241 Toll Road, an accident victim desperately in need of air transport to the nearest emergency room.

But an Orange County Fire Authority dispatcher sent a fire helicopter that arrived in 18 minutes — instead of calling a sheriff's copter only a minute away — a fact that haunts Sgt. William Fitzgerald, the former leader of the sheriff's aviation unit.

The death of a 7-year-old child has raised concerns about Orange County's air ambulance system, after a fire helicopter took 18 minutes to arrive while a sheriff's helicopter one minute away was not dispatched.
The death of a 7-year-old child has raised concerns about Orange County's air ambulance system, after a fire helicopter took 18 minutes to arrive while a sheriff's helicopter one minute away was not dispatched. (Photo/Orange County Sheriff's Department)

"The 7-year-old did not make it. All of us in public safety should be ashamed of ourselves about this call," Fitzgerald wrote in an Aug. 29, 2019, email to Sheriff's Department colleagues.

It is unclear if the Fontana boy could have been saved by a faster response time. But Fitzgerald, in an email to his then-supervisor, Lt. Thomas Graham, wrote: "We would have given the child the best chance for survival."

At issue in the attempted rescue of Ver'shad is an arrangement between the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the Orange County Fire Authority on how their aviation units split up calls for help.

The Fire Authority could not give a direct answer why it dispatched the helicopter with the longer arrival time and not the one closest to the accident site. Both copters carried paramedics trained in advanced life support.

Ver'shad's parents, Vernon and La'keisha Raggins, were unaware of the helicopter debate until they were contacted by the Southern California News Group. They said the minutes seemed like hours as they waited for the fire helicopter to arrive.

"I wish they would have had a faster response. We were all like, 'When is someone going to get here?' " said Vernon Raggins, who had three broken ribs himself as he tried to coax his son back to consciousness. "We were calling his name, trying to get him to wake up."

Sgt. Fitzgerald received a 12-hour unpaid suspension after questioning the helicopter response. He also was removed from the sheriff's aviation unit he helped develop.

Tug-of-war between agencies

From 2016 to 2018, the fire and sheriff"s agencies were involved in a tug-of-war, with their helicopters fighting over rescue calls. Pilots would race each other to emergency calls in a bitter and dangerous turf war, jockeying in midair to be the first to arrive.

The infighting caused delays in the care given to patients, county officials say.

Until then, air rescues had always been the domain of the Fire Authority, with the sheriff's choppers used mostly for patrol and searches.

But the Sheriff's Department encroachment into the rescue business became political, with both sides finally promising to work together. They forged an agreement over rescues in rural, hard-to-reach areas.

The Fire Authority would handle emergency remote rescues from Monday through Thursday and at night. The sheriff's helicopters would take the weekends. The agreement only applied to remote areas, not roadways. Ambulance company Mercy Air got first right of refusal on roadway emergencies, with sheriff and fire helicopters splitting the remaining calls and acting as air ambulances.

But that's not what happened on Aug. 25, 2019, the day a van slammed into Raggins' disabled car.

Car stalls on toll road

Raggins and his family were in a Kia that stalled on the State Route 241 Toll Road near Windy Ridge, east of Anaheim Hills, about 1:30 p.m. Ver'shad and his twin brother, Ver'ell, belonged to a boys football team, the Bruins of Bloomington, and were en route to a group picnic at the beach in Dana Point.

It was the twins' first year in football and mom, La'keisha, was afraid they might get hurt. Ver'shad, after all, was her "little man." He was trying out for the running back position.

But those football dreams ended when a van driven by Byong Yun Choe smashed into the family vehicle, stalled in the middle of the toll way, fatally injuring Ver'shad and hurting three other family members.

Within minutes, bystanders were performing CPR on Ver'shad on the asphalt, trying desperately to revive him.

La'keisha remembered that Ver'shad and his brother came into the world fighting for their lives after they were born about three months premature. Now he was going to his death fighting.

Mom in car ahead

His pulse was strong, Vernon Raggins said. La'keisha had been in a car ahead of the family, talking to Vernon over her Bluetooth mobile phone, when the crash occurred. She heard the crunch of metal and the screams of her family, and pulled a U-turn.

The fire dispatcher initially called Mercy Air, which gave an arrival time of 30 minutes, according to dispatch records. That was too long.

So — although the accident occurred on a Sunday, the sheriff's day for helicopter duty — the call went to the Fire Department. The fire helicopter was dispatched at 1:44 p.m. and arrived at 2:02. Ver'shad was loaded inside and taken to Global Medical Center in Santa Ana.

At the time, Fitzgerald and his crew were unaware they were no longer doing air ambulance calls, except in Newport Beach and Laguna Beach. He investigated and, four days after the accident, notified the sheriff's aviation team and others of the change in an Aug. 29, 2019, email.

Former sheriff's aviation crew volunteer Jim Slikker responded with an email of his own to Fitzgerald.

"Bill, I don't understand. Why are you not responding to Air Ambulance calls? I remember specifically you and I talking about that the citizens come first and not politics. ... It was about the citizens. Politics should never get in the way of people's lives," Slikker scolded.

Policy reexamination?

Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department, said her agency would consider reevaluating its practices if warranted.

"We work collaboratively with the Fire Authority," Braun said. "Should there be a need to examine (helicopter) calls, we're open to that."

Meanwhile, Vernon and La'Keisha Raggins were trying hard not to lay blame in Ver'shad's death. They are focused on their children, including the remaining twin, Ver'ell. He only recently could bring himself to say his brother's name. Throughout their lives, his parents had dressed Ver'shad in green and Ver'ell in blue so they could tell the boys apart.

Now there is only blue.


(c)2020 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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